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Wildfire risk is increasing in Whatcom County. Are we ready?

The Bellingham Herald logo The Bellingham Herald 6/22/2022 Ysabelle Kempe, The Bellingham Herald (Bellingham, Wash.)

Jun. 22—The recipe for a wildfire in Whatcom County doesn't require many ingredients: Combine a long period of hot, dry weather that turns vegetation into tinder with a strong wind sweeping east across the Cascades. Then, just add a spark.

"Everything has to align perfectly here for something like that to happen," said Jenny Coe, community wildfire resilience coordinator at the Whatcom Conservation District. "But it can, and we know the conditions that would allow that to happen are increasing."

Summers are getting hotter and drier in western Washington due to human-caused climate change, meaning even typically soggy areas of the state are at increasing risk of wildfire. Armed with this knowledge, leaders and communities in Whatcom are determining how to best prepare for the day the fires arrive.

"In my opinion, Whatcom is sort of in the early stages of understanding wildfire risk and paying attention to the history of wildfires on a county level," Coe said. "But we are on the path."

Whatcom County has always had wildfires, but the "fire ecology" of western Washington is much different than that of the eastern part of the state, according to a February 2021 article by state Department of Natural Resources Stewardship Forester Matt Provencher in Forest Stewardship Notes. The website is a joint effort by Washington State University Extension Forestry and the DNR Small Forest Landowner Office.

While the "return interval," or time between wildfires in a given area, is five to 30 years in eastern Washington, that number jumps to two to four centuries in western Washington, Provencher writes. However, when a large wildfire does come, it can burn hotter and more intensely, encouraged by the heavy fuel load that has built up. These "stand-replacing fires" kill almost all trees in an area.

"There's nothing left," Coe said. "It kills everything. It damages the soil."

Remember that dry east wind that makes wildfire more likely in Whatcom? Research is still being done to determine whether this event will become more or less frequent and intense with climate change.

The last "sizable" fire in Whatcom was the Goodell Fire caused by lightning in 2015, Coe said. This fire burned thousands of acres near Newhalem, a town owned and managed by the public utility Seattle City Light, which operates a hydroelectric project on the Skagit River.

Areas of highest concern

Whatcom areas with higher wildfire risk include Kendall and Columbia Valley, as well as Glacier, said Wally Kost, a program specialist with the Whatcom County Sheriff's Office Division of Emergency Management.

"There's a ton of people in that valley," Coe said of these areas. "They are kind of trapped between two mountainsides."

In many of these communities, there is just a single road offering access, making evacuation potentially complicated, Kost said. Limited access might spur officials to call for evacuation sooner, perhaps when a wildfire is 10 miles away, rather than five, he said. A group of emergency response organizations met in late May to discuss how they would deal with a wildfire breaking out in Whatcom. The meeting included the Washington Emergency Management Division, the National Weather Service, utility Puget Sound Energy, local fire districts, law enforcement and the Whatcom County Health Department.

"We want to make sure we are all communicating and on the same page when it comes to a response," Kost said.

Many Whatcom residents are taking wildfire preparedness into their own hands, and Coe has recently seen increased interest in the Whatcom Conservation District's free wildfire risk assessments, which help homeowners understand how to reduce wildfire risk on their property. Whereas the organization used to do about 30 of these assessments per year, typically between May and September, it did more than 150 between May 2021 and May 2022, Coe said.

Coe has two guesses for what's driving the increased concern: Smoky summers, caused by wildfires elsewhere in the region, and Whatcom trees dying after years of drought conditions. Another potential driver is that people are seeing wildfires flare up in other suburban and urban areas throughout the American West.

"People are seeing those things and thinking 'Why couldn't that happen here?'" Coe said.

She recommends homeowners focus on reducing the density and continuity of vegetation within 100 feet of their home. People should prune branches hanging over roofs and remove underbrush that creates a ladder for fire to climb into the trees.

The spark that starts a wildfire in Whatcom could be born from something as commonplace as a chainsaw or car parked in a dry grass field, said Kost with the Whatcom County Sheriff's Office Division of Emergency Management.

"A catalytic converter can get up to 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit and start a fire," he said. "People aren't aware of all the ways a fire can be created when they are out enjoying themselves in the wild."

Preventing wildfires

A common wildfire prevention strategy is thinning forests, or cutting down some trees to reduce the competition for those remaining. This can "increase long-term tree vigor and resiliency to whatever threat they may face," Provencher writes in Forest Stewardship Notes.

While thinning can be a successful strategy to prevent wildfires in some situations, Coe cautions against applying it in all western Washington forests, which she said are naturally denser than those in eastern Washington. Provencher's article echoed this point.

"If you were to take a westside forest and thin, mulch, masticate, etc. to make it look like an eastside forest, you would be detrimentally altering the ecology," Provencher writes.

Provencher added that it's difficult to maintain "open conditions" in incredibly productive westside forests and that thinning is "unlikely to prevent or mitigate the kind of wildfire spread inherent to those large fires driven by east wind events, which spread far and fast through embers."

He recommended forest management efforts be focused primarily near homes and structures.

As for this year, Kost with the county has high hopes that the recent rainy, cool weather will keep wildfire risk at bay: "Keep the moisture coming, and we will all have a wonderful summer."

(c)2022 The Bellingham Herald (Bellingham, Wash.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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